Jacqueline Wilson is the Children's Laureate. Her books for children – including The Suitcase Kid, Double Act, The Story of Tracy Beaker, The Illustrated Mum and Love Lessons – have sold millions of copies, been translated into more than 30 languages and won many prizes. Jacqueline is the most borrowed author from British public libraries. Below she remembers discovering Katherine Mansfield's 'The Doll's House'.
Jacqueline Wilson on 'The Doll's House' by Katherine Mansfield
Like most children in the 1950s, I read my way through Enid Blyton when I was in the Infants. I never had much time for Noddy, but I loved the Magic Faraway Tree books, and then went on those famous boiled egg and ginger beer picnics with the Famous Five and played tricks on the funny French teacher with the Twins at St Clare's. When I went up into Junior school I started to feel a bit restless and dissatisfied with these stories. I didn't have the words to express it but I wanted more depth and characterization in my books. I wanted to read about children as they really are, not the one-dimensional jolly decent Blyton boys and girls. I wanted gritty realism, but with a delicacy of language that would make every word chime in my head.
Then one day by chance I found what I was looking for. I was flicking through some big thick-paged school anthology and found a short story called 'The Doll's House'. I loved dolls' houses. I had one of my own, a red and white detached villa with green latticed windows - a much more desirable residence than our own cramped council flat. I played with my doll's house for hours. Sometimes I'd hunch up really small and shut my eyes tight and try to will myself inside the house, sitting on the green plastic armchair and licking the brightly painted plaster cakes.
I started reading 'The Doll's House' - and I felt as excited as the Burnell children when I read the description of the fully furnished miniature rooms. I knew why Kezia liked the little lamp so much. My doll's house didn't have anything as elegant as a little amber lamp. I read on, and my spine started prickling when I read about the Kelveys, the washerwoman's daughters, the oddly dressed little girls that no one talked to. There were 'Kelvey' girls at my own school, little girls who wore jumpers under their summer frocks in winter, who had let-down, drooping-hem coats and plimsolls with holes in the toes. These girls had mums who worked in factories, but their dads often didn't work at all. Sometimes they didn't have dads.
We were respectable. My Dad had a proper white-collar job. We might live in council flats, but my Mum insisted they were a 'better type of council flat'. My Mum dressed me in fancy coats from C&A and made me attend elocution lessons once a week. She didn't want all her hard work undone by me hob-nobbing with rag, tag and bobtail little girls.
I played with them secretly. I badly wanted to be proper friends, but didn't quite dare. I so felt for Kezia when she invites Lil and Our Else Kelvey in to see the doll's house. I cringed when Aunt Beryl found out and was furious. I found the bitter-sweet ending utterly perfect.
It was the best short story I'd ever read. I wanted to read more by this author Katherine Mansfield. By the time I was in my mid-teens I'd read every single story she wrote, her letters, her journals, and several biographies. I identified enormously with Katherine. I understood why she wanted to change her name from Kathleen to Katherine. I felt so sorry for her, trying to live on very little money on the fringes of London's literary society. I loved Virginia Woolf by this time too, but I hated the way Virginia looked down on Katherine and said she stank like a civet cat, when Katherine was so proud of her flowering gorse French perfume. I was furious with the footling little John Middleton Murray; I felt he was the most inadequate, lukewarm lover. I wept when I read about Katherine choking to death on her own blood and Middleton Murray not being brave enough to stay and hold her hand. But more than anything, I marvelled at the power of Katherine's writing.
I admired the full range of her writing. I loved the way she could convincingly take on the persona of a Lady's Maid or the sad little spinster Miss Brill. I laughed fondly at her depiction of the timid daughters of the Late Colonel. I winced at her depiction of arty modern society in 'Marriage à la Mode' and sympathized with tired wistful Rosabel, the hatshop girl. But most of all I loved Katherine Mansfield's stories about children, especially the beautiful and nostalgic stories about the Burnell family, 'Prelude' and 'At the Bay'. Kezia is the most convincing child in all literature, biting into her bread and dripping to make a little gate, scared of IT at the bottom of the stairs, cuddling up with her grandmother and making her promise she won't ever die, pretending to be a bee, all yellow furry with striped legs.
I was lucky enough to be given a first edition of The Garden Party recently, and on the dustwrapper it says:
Miss Manfield's stories are like life reflected in a round mirror. Everything is exquisitely bright, exquisitely distinct and just a little queer.I think that sums things up perfectly.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]